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Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre.

It is now almost forty years since Simon Towneley Worsthorne's Venetian Opera in the Seventeenth Century was first published. The first substantial monograph in any language to deal with the early history of the genre on the stages of the Serenissima, Worsthorne's book was motivated by the belief that "the Venetian favole in musica ... are the first works to be produced under more or less modern conditions" and that as a result "the opera became part of the cultivated life which resulted in the birth of an informed and critical public." Ellen Rosand's new book, significantly and ambitiously titled in a different way, demonstrates on every page how much has changed since this cozily Darwinian scheme was proposed, and one of the book's many strengths is its determination to take the operas mounted in Venice between 1638 and 1678 not as early precursors of "modern conditions" but rather on their own terms.

The book falls into two distinct parts. What the author calls "the extramusical issues" (the nature and history of the impresarial system, the changing roles of composer and librettist, the chronology of opera production in the city, etc.), occupies the first eight chapters, while a discussion of musical, textual and dramatic conventions takes up the remaining five. In her delineations of evolving operatic musico-textual practices, she is naturally much concerned with the taxonomy of arias, their characterization as comic or "trumpet arias, love duets, sleep scenes, invocation songs or mad scenes." As Rosand points out, many of these conventions have their roots in late Renaissance theatrical forms, and all were ultimately absorbed within the generalized style recognizable as that of "Venetian" and eventually Italian opera. Yet against these general developments, the impact of particular singers, librettists, composers or indeed economic conditions was often crucial in the sense that local resources both human and financial could shape individual works, require modifications to be made to the text, or account for the fashionability of certain character-roles. Rosand explicitly acknowledges the presence of these features (and similar conditioning factors) in her account of "the creation of a genre," but she tends to underplay them on the one hand, and does not sufficiently integrate them on the other. It is symptomatic that the major discussion of Anna Renzi occurs not in the second part of the book but in the first (in a chapter devoted to singers), even more so that the structure of the book, which "might best be described as bipartite" (introduction), tends to isolate the "extramusical" material from discussion of the works themselves. The truth of the matter is that despite her formidable knowledge of all the relevant historical material, Rosand's model of explanation is dominated by the libretto and by the music where it survives, and that considerations such as the development of singing techniques, or the importance of spectacular effects (the second of these, for example, is treated only in relation to Torelli's career at the Teatro Novissimo) are relegated to a position of secondary importance.

It is easy to see how this might have happened. The tradition that privileges music and text over performance and spectacle is deeply entrenched, and is liable to be encouraged in the particular circumstances of the seventeenth-century Venetian repertoire. One obvious difficulty of the subject is that so few scores have survived and that so few of those that have are available in modern editions. Texts on the other hand abound; at least one copy of the libretto of nearly all the operas from the period is extant. The study of the one hundred and fifty or so works written during Rosand's chronological span is essentially a study of a genre which, as its usual name dramma per musica implies, was literary before it was musical. There is no evidence that the public was ever involved in the choice of theme; on the contrary, that choice was made by the librettist at the express commission of the impresario, or at least with knowledge of his expectations and that of his audience. In the case of Marco Faustini, the librettist was so successful that he was actually able to turn himself into an impresario. The coincidence of interests that this represents within the workings of the Venetian impresarial model leads to the inevitable conclusion that opera, once established, functioned as a public demonstration of authority. It is certainly true that, as Rosand makes clear, the identification of contemporary Venice with ancient Rome is a commonplace, as are marine and nautical themes with their familiar overtones of Venice as Queen of the Adriatic; in this sense opera could easily become a vehicle for jingoism and chauvinism. But whether "opera in Venice provided a diversion for the masses" in which "the citizens of the Republic affirmed their allegiance to the idea of Venice" must be severely questioned. Are such patriotic statements as the prologue to Fusconi's Argiope (1649), in which an allegorical conflict between War and Peace is resolved with Peace hailing Venice as her natural home (the opera was performed at a critical moment in the war against the Turks), to be read as communal celebrations of Venetian identity, part of the armoury of social control, or both?

That question partly turns on the character of the audience for opera, and on the extent to which it can be judged as a popular art form. Here Rosand surely exaggerates the extent to which opera in Venice catered to a popular audience, "drawn from the carnival crowds that annually swelled the population.... When foreign tourists took their places in the theaters, they were surrounded by the full spectrum of the Venetians, from the patricians in the boxes to the volgo in the stalls." Foreign tourists certainly, though from the evidence available it seems that it was well-placed gentlemen doing the Grand Tour who frequented the opera rather than French cures waiting for the spring tides to take them to Jerusalem. As for "the volgo in the stalls," when Antioco, to music by Cavalli, was performed at the Teatro S. Cassiano in 1659, the number of scagni (seats on the floor of the house) sold for the twenty-four performances represented a nightly average of just 31% of the audience, the remainder being box-holders and their guests. Since the price of admission (bolletino plus scagno) came to more than a full-day's wages for even the better-paid workmen employed in the theater, there cannot have been too many of the popolani among the listeners. Most Venetian houses were owned by aristocratic families, and the overall character of the enterprise was of the Venetian patrician class subsidizing its own entertainment. In these circumstances, the message which was often projected on the stage was not "a celebration of the myth of Venice" in which "the spectacle of opera mirrored the spectacle of Venice itself" so much as an affirmation of the political ideology of the ruling calss.

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Author:Fenlon, Iain
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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